Severance (봄날 #2)


I am a Korean American of mixed descent, the daughter of a Korean immigrant and a white American soldier. In January 2024, I moved from the United States to South Korea, where I will live for a year as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) and recipient of the Fulbright grant. Bomnal (봄날), or Spring Days, is a blog series where I reflect on my experiences navigating a country of my heritage in my young adulthood. The word 봄, Spring, comes from my Korean middle name. I chose the title 봄날 to convey the changes I will experience as I bloom, wilt, and learn to grow through this year abroad.

clairefy is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

One day, a young woman wakes up to a dead world. An unforeseen sickness has rapidly spread through her city. One by one, businesses shut their doors; the streets are now empty. Those who could fled. The woman’s family is gone. Her parents have passed on, and her boyfriend appears to be missing. Put simply, her new world is in chaos. She should feel scared, sad, maybe even resentful. Why, then, in the midst of it all, can she only think of work?

— ♡ —

Does this story sound familiar? It is not a retelling of our reality, but the plot of Ling Ma’s Severance, a fictional novel about a zombie pandemic published in 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, many readers discovered Severance and labelled it an eerily prescient work. Like COVID-19, Ma’s invented Shen Fever galvanized national dialogue over suspected origins in China, invigorated proponents of anti-Asian immigration policies, and forced people to sever connections with others to avoid infection. I read Severance in the summer of 2023, a couple of months before I came to Korea. While reading, I, too, found the novel almost clairvoyant in its lucid depiction of pandemic life. But what was most striking to me about Ma’s book was not the literal or logistical similarities between her fictional disease and ours. Her precise depiction of the human desire for routine in uncertainty is what continues to haunt me.

Through tragedy, hardship, and even a zombie apocalypse, Ma’s characters cling to routine. Candace Chen, the young woman who leads the novel, works relentlessly, even when she is encouraged to quit her job to escape the city. Candace works so much that she barely notices when her coworkers uncannily disappear until she is the only person left working in her office. Routine is her comfort— and almost nearly her curse. In Severance, the infected population does not just become physically sick; they become zombies of repetition, corpses condemned to repeat an action they associated with their lives until death. For many of Ma’s characters, this action is associated with work. In one of the most disturbing scenes in the novel, Candace obliviously observes an afflicted woman who is unable to stop folding clothes through a shop window in New York City.

— ♡ —

During my first two months in Korea, I could not stop thinking about Severance. On the surface, the novel bore little relevance to my new circumstances. I was no longer living under pandemic restrictions; I was traveling, attending classes, and meeting new people. Yet whenever I tried to write anything about my second month in Korea or the conclusion of Fulbright orientation, I found myself circling back to Ma’s novel and reflecting on my relationship to routine. Who had routines molded me into as the world emerged from a pandemic and I sought structure and relief? And now that relocation and a new cultural context stood to radically transform my routines, who did I want to become?

It would be dramatic to say that COVID-19 made me into a zombie, but in my worst moments, like Ma’s characters, routines of my own making allowed me to numb, or at least dull, my awareness of my worries and the chaos of the world around me. In those moments, a concerned mentor once told me that my habits were becoming “ritualistic.” He was right. I had taught myself to follow routine like religion. Some of my rituals then: run, even when injured. Maybe run more because you’re injured. Get at least 10,000 steps a day. Because your movement is confined, pace in circles around your room for as long as it takes. In class and at work, stay a week ahead, or else you’re behind. Triple check for everything before you leave a room, then check for things again, just in case. Caffeine, of course. Make schedules, schedules for making those schedules, and more schedules. If you practice these rituals dutifully, perhaps you can find salvation from your anxieties. You just have to sacrifice feeling. Wasn’t feeling so unproductive anyway?

When I came into Fulbright orientation, I wasn’t as rigid about my routines as I was during that time in college, but I certainly was still grappling with the aftermath of a long time spent thinking so strictly. My second month of being in Korea disrupted the rituals I’d still been clinging to in a way that was at times, painful, but I think, ultimately, healing. This observation feels like it should be paradoxical because the orientation program revolved around tight schedules. Every day, the cohort attended meals, classes, and workshops together, sometimes for 12 hours at a time, for a period of six weeks. Despite my affinity for routines, I railed against the structure of orientation. I complained so much about my lack of personal morning routine during the first two weeks that one of my friends joked that it had become an integral part of my “Fulbright persona”. The orientation schedule had displaced my own control over my rituals. Without them, I was forced to just feel. And boy, did I feel.

— ♡ —

There were days that old doubts I thought I’d quashed for good seemed to buzz in my ears and days that new ones bit at me incessantly. Why did I come here? What am I doing? Am I alone? Did I make the right choices? Can I do this? My capacity to feel sometimes surprised me. At the placement ceremony, where Fulbright grantees are called up to a stage individually to learn their school placement for the year, I became so nervous that I started physically shaking. A friend sitting in my row tried to lead me through deep breathing exercises. I hadn’t known that getting placed somewhere my family had history meant so much to me.

Feeling could be overwhelming, but it could also be liberating. In the last ten days or so of orientation, I became friends with some people I now feel like I’ve known for years. As I reflect, I am acutely aware that there was a version of me that would never have allowed us to meet: my dedication to routine and to maximizing a narrow idea of my personal productivity would have severed any possible connection before it could have happened. There was a version of me that would never have shared ice cream and sweet fruit sodas with them; would never have made fun of myself in front of them; and would never have stayed up late to talk to them for fear of jeopardizing my performance the next day. I am so grateful to be learning how to let go and live. My world is brighter with these people in it.

— ♡ —

If Ling Ma’s heroine, like many of the characters who become zombies in Severance, was so strongly bound to her work, how did she escape the sickness of routine? Although Candace initially succumbs to numbness through labor, she manages to escape as one of the lone survivors of the pandemic. Ma leaves what happens to Candace next a mystery. Many readers have complained that the protagonist’s uncertain future at the conclusion of the book makes it an unsatisfying ending. To me, though, the fact that Candace survived at all makes the conclusion hopeful.

I have a theory about how Candace made it: she found a greater purpose beyond the mundanity of work, the catalyst of the Shen Fever. When the illness ravaged New York City, Candace photographed abandoned neighborhoods to document the consequences of the disease in their full truth. This practice was a form of routine, yes, but it was one that served Candace first, above the expectations of her employer or her zombified coworkers. Discovering something to live for also empowered her to find a community to survive for. While physically isolated from her parents and boyfriend, Candace’s desire to escape for her future daughter allows her to visualize her mother speaking to her, advising her on how she can survive. With the newfound strength of her mother behind her, she does.
— ♡ —

It occurred to me while I was packing to move to my new placement school that my past self could never have conceived of my current reality, and maybe that is exactly the change that I needed. While cleaning my orientation dorm room, I stumbled upon a crumpled-up napkin that I left in my laptop case. Without realizing it, I’d been keeping that napkin in there for at least a year.

I received this napkin during a conversation with a college professor about challenges and worries I was having that semester. He asked me to forget about my expectations for the future and simply tell him about things that would make me feel better in that moment. As I spoke, he summarized what I said on the napkin with what he called a “three-month horizon” to happiness. The list went:

  • Take a break from certain priorities
  • Try a new experience
  • Prioritize belonging – friends/family

It’s funny to think that I am— the mess that I am!— the living legacy of this past self, following some iteration of her recipe for a happier life. There are, and will continue to be, many challenges as I adjust to change in my placement.

I can already see that a future completely removed from routine is not possible. One of the first things I did when I arrived at my new community was sign up for a local gym, and I anticipate integrating more structures into my life to anchor me through the transitions to come. But I now challenge myself to view a future completely dominated by routine as an equally impossible one. I do not want to be so focused on self-preservation that I miss out on the joys of the present. If there must be a severance, let it not be from my past self, whose failures and hopes brought me here. Let it be from the fears that molded her practices and the rituals that did not serve her.

All the love,

1 comment :

  1. Would you believe that I just gave a presentation on Severance in my PhD class yesterday? Wow, great minds do think alike! You have echoed so many of my feelings on the book.